Government intervention where it counts

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(A longer version of this piece was delivered February 13, 2004 at the Third UP public lectures on the Philippine Presidency and Administration)

The arroyo government came to power in 2001 on the twin mandate of efficient and honest government and the rejection of traditional politics in favor of the new.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was aware of that mandate, and it was in fact the main theme of her inaugural speech on January 21, 2001. Among other promises, she committed herself to the development of a politics that would focus on party-based platforms rather than personalities, and the making of a government that would try its best to address at least some of the most urgent problems of the country, particularly its poverty.

In the weeks of watchful waiting that followed, the most concerned sectors of the citizenry to whom EDSA 2 had promised a better future hoped that the new president would take the steps, no matter how small to begin with, that would arrest and perhaps reverse the damage to the political system and its institutions the politics of patronage and inanity had wrought. They also expected her to put in place a government transparent in both policy and decision-making, as well as relatively free of the corruption metastizing in almost every agency and government instrumentality.

Implicit in the first was the need to transform Philippine elections particularly from circuses of corruption and popularity contests into authentic exercises in informed democratic choice.

Traditional money politics—the kind that had led to the election of actors to the presidency and comedians to the Senate—as well as dishonest and inefficient government were after all central to the country’s failure to reach the levels of development many of its neighbors had achieved. This thesis was at the heart of EDSA 2 when it removed the Estrada government from power and thereby made an Arroyo presidency inevitable.

Of critical import to the flowering of new politics and good governance in this rumored democracy is an informed citizenry. Transformed into the electorate every election period, no citizenry can make intelligent choices unless armed with an understanding of its responsibility and how to discharge it. At the same time, any government that would be democratic needs a citizenry capable of evaluating what that government is doing if only to provide a second opinion on issues of public interest. An informed citizenry is also the best check on government, and helps assure the survival of democratic governance.

But the tragedy of Philippine democracy is rooted in the political and civic illiteracy of the millions of Filipinos who decide the outcome of elections. They are easily intimidated and easily bought, and many of them indeed market their votes every election period as if votes were fish or cigarettes.

The middle class whose members pay most of the taxes in this country may now be more politically-conscious, and aware of its civic responsibilities. They made EDSA possible. But they do not decide elections, because they comprise only a thin layer of the population. The overwhelming mass of the electorate decides—and the traditional politicians have conditioned it to decide on the basis of its emotions, the way a candidate looks, or a candidate’s dancing and singing abilities, or how much he or she’s willing to pay for votes. This is the social base of traditional politics, and of those unqualified for public office.

Today as in January 2001 the country is only several weeks away from elections. In 2001 the new government had four months until the elections that year to educate the public. Since then it has had three years whole years, plus the next ninety days, to reorient the government public information system—which for decades has served as the personal public relations agency of whoever’s president—and to conduct through all the media, whether government-owned or private, an education campaign on voter responsibilities among other critical issues. Equally important, that same system could have been the principal means through which the transparency every government since that of Corazon Aquino has pledged itself could have been realized.

This implies an openness the selective release of information contradicts. Not even the COMELEC is inclined to his view. But Press Secretary Meliton Alingod told the media only this week that the posters and billboards that dot both city and countryside which proclaim this road or that bridge to have been the handiwork of President Arroyo are “development materials” meant to inform the public of what the government is doing.

If that is indeed the case, the public would have been even better served if, for example, it knew what the exact terms of the 2003 agreement between Presidents Arroyo and Bush were on the matter of US military and economic aid to the Philippines which were the preconditions for the government’s support for the US attack on Iraq. For that matter, it could have served the public equally well if, prior to the signing of the bilateral agreement exempting US troops from being sued before the International Criminal Court—also in 2003—it had been at least informed that the government was considering that option.

The critical issue in public information, which is another name for government public relations, is the need for it to truly serve, as the very term states, the public’s urgent need for information as the necessary condition for responsible decision-making.

After the collapse of the Marcos regime, the country discovered that the government’s “public information” bureaucracy had grown to gigantic proportions. The need to turn that bureaucracy around and to make it serve the public’s need for information was widely recognized not only in academia, but also in the more responsible sectors of mass media practitioners.

The reason was simple enough. Marcos had used that bureaucracy to keep himself in power through the selective release of information, meaning that it released only the information that would make him look good and withheld the information that would make him look bad.

Some would argue the inevitability of this practice on the part of government, just as it is often inevitable in the case of any public relations or advertising effort to sell any product. Public relations does have an agenda—which, may I add parenthetically, distinguishes it from the best practice of journalism.

But public information is not in the business of selling soap or toothpaste, at least not in this country, and neither should it be about the selling of a particular person. It should be—and our circumstances demand that it be—about engaging the sovereign people in the monumental task of creating a government and politics that can help lead the country of our despair out of the dark night of corruption, hopelessness and decay to which it has been condemned.

At the heart of the public information system should have been this urgent commitment. It is a commitment that required not only the redirection of the information system. It demanded as well government’s active defense of the freedom of the press.

This is both its responsibility as well as to its own benefit. Inevitable in a mass media regime like ours, where the mass media under government control is necessarily limited, is government’s at least partial reliance on the privately-owned mass media as vehicles of the information it wants to transmit.

Unfortunately government recognition of this truth and its consequent efforts to influence the media have resulted in its compromising that very freedom and creating conflicts of interest through such devices as appointing columnists to the boards of directors of government corporations, or donating P1 million (twice) to certain press organizations.

On the other hand, the government has been notably absent where the press has needed intervention most, specifically on the matter of the killing of journalists, which as of last count has reached 44 incidents since 1986. Fourteen journalists have been killed during the Arroyo watch. Last year, when a record-breaking seven were killed, was the worst year for the press since 1987. The most recent killing occurred only last Wednesday, this early in the year, and in the prelude to the May elections.

It may be that the government believes that it should leave journalists alone, at least when they most need support. But if, as Article III Section 4 of the Constitutions declares, no law may be passed infringing on press freedom and free expression, it doesn’t mean that the press, like any other sector of society or segment of the population, is not entitled to government protection. The distressing fact is that this protection—in terms of preventing future killings through the capture and prosecution of those responsible for the murder of journalists—has not been forthcoming.

And yet, as much as the continuing killing of journalists indicates the failure of the justice system at the community level, it is also an issue the government’s public information system should be concerned with. If the government cannot protect the press, how then can it expect the press to be other than adversarial, suspicious of government motives and cynical of its promises and claims to achievement no matter how expertly worded? It is here where government intervention is needed most, not in assuring its leading personalities a good press by seducing journalists into violating their own ethical and professional standards.

(Today/abs-cbnNEWS.com, February 14, 2004)

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